Friday, June 17, 2016

Peace in an Age of Fear

Fear. Fear of the future. Fear of where the economy is heading. Fear for how our children will earn their keep someday. Fear of terrorists. Fear of illness. Fear of loss.

I have no way of knowing if this is the way humanity has generally done business, or if something, something related to developments in media and politics and God knows what else, has warped our emotions into such a disfigured state. But I think it's probably always been this way.

I am no psychologist but I, like you, know what it is like to be afraid. At certain points in my youth I felt crippled by vague anxiety for long periods of time. My life was wonderful, my home peaceful. The fear was inside me, not forced upon me.

Here is what I have noticed about fear: fear brings out the worst in us. We are willing to consider actions when afraid that we would generally see as immoral or even cruel (torture, for example). Fear deadens our creativity and our love. Fear awakens our inner animal, and mutes every other voice except the one that roars, "SURVIVE!"

And we all probably realize this, to a degree. I assume very few of us enjoy feeling fearful (is there anything worse?). Anxiety, which is simply chronic fear, is not our preferred state of mind.

But I want to up the ante. We have gone too easy on our fears. We have let them shape our policies, our conversations, our decisions, and our treatment of others far too long. We have accepted our fear as an unpleasant neighbor when we should have treated it as a burglar at our doorstep.

Let me show my cards: I strive to be first and foremost a Christ follower. And that means I fear God. This phrase used to bother me, because my experience of God was that he was a loving Father, more gentle with me and accepting of my faults than any human could ever be. How would I fear the one my soul loves?

But in the language of the ancient world of scripture, to fear an authority meant something other than emotional dread (while to us millennials emotion is 99% of our reality). Fear meant allegiance. It meant obedience. To fear the king was to acknowledge his authority. To not fear him was to be a lawless brigand.

So to fear God is to obey him. And here is where we should start getting uncomfortable. What if the things we feared actually revealed our true gods?

To fear God is to follow Jesus. It is to "take up our cross and follow" him. To fear God is to be (or, more precisely, to be in the process of being) set free from other, lesser fears. By embracing the cross, Jesus walked head first into a living nightmare. The weight of the decision caused him emotional anguish, certainly. Yet he faced it willingly. He faced it lovingly. He inaugurated the kingdom of peace by overcoming fear through obedience.

Peace. Peace is what we were made for. Peace is what is left when the fears are buried where they belong. "My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you. I don't give peace the way the world does. Let not your hearts be troubled, and DO NOT BE AFRAID." (John 14:27 emphasis added).

There you have it, the most frequent command in the Bible. DO NOT BE AFRAID. DO NOT BE AFRAID that you won't be able to provide for yourself (Matthew 6:25). DO NOT BE AFRAID of the violence of people who want to kill you(Matthew 10:28). DO NOT BE AFRAID of the future, because nothing in it can separate you from the glorious love of God revealed in the person of Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). Instead, fear God (read: obey God) and have peace.

You see, if we truly want to follow Jesus, we embark on a journey that is meant to turn our every fear on its head. Instead of fearing what we might lose, we scheme about what we can give. Instead of wringing our hands over how to avoid danger, we plot about how to love the dangerous. 'Can't that sort of thing get you killed?' you might ask. Well, I suppose, given the model we are supposedly emulating, yes it can.

But here is the genius of it. Our fears are rooted in our powerlessness. We fear what might be thrust upon us, the horrors of a world outside our control. When we choose to risk and engage the world with Christ-like love and trust, even if we suffer, we suffer powerfully. Think of MLK. Did he suffer? Yes. But his suffering was imbued with power because he chose to live in a way that overcame fear. His suffering did not amount to loss (which is what we fear our suffering will amount to). His suffering enriched the world.

So that is the long and short of it. Fear is not an unpleasant neighbor-fear is a thief. Fear is not thrust upon us by the scary world-fear lives within us. Christ offers us peace-but peace comes at the price of obedience. Obedience to the God of co-suffering love, of all-giving trust, rather than the idols of prosperity and security (popular idols in Rome and Babylon as well, need I add).

Does the notion terrify you (how ironic, I know)? It does me. And yet, we are not left to face the road to peace alone. We have a companion and a counselor who yearns to whisper to us the way forward-the very Spirit of the living God. Let me close with Paul's words to Timothy, a young man leading communities of Christ followers in an age of persecution and immorality.

"For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind."
2 Timothy 1:7 

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Kingdom at Hand

"Repent!" Jesus famously commanded. "For the Kingdom of God  is at hand!" Jesus called his generation to turn, to leave behind the lives they had known, and to follow him into some new way of being. To call it Christianity, or a new sort of religion, is to look back into the story and try to make sense of it using titles and categories that didn't exist until later. It was not a religion Jesus was heralding, but a new age-an entirely different type of reality.

And this new age didn't dawn upon the world without warning. This, according to Jesus and his early followers, was the day the prophets had spoken of. The story had gone terribly awry, the glory of God had grown distant. Sin had hardened hearts and needed to be atoned for. Enemies had made slaves of the children of God. Abraham's seed was intended to bless all the families of the earth, but it had instead become a byword among the nations.

Yet they knew the story wasn't over. God would come. He would come to avenge, and to redeem. To forgive and to heal. To open the eyes of the blind and to raise the dead. Sons would come home and a nation would be born in a day. The Spirit of God would be poured out, new hearts would be given, the distant nations of the earth brought into the divine romance.

Into this fray of pain and longing steps the carpenter's son, Jesus of Nazareth. "These words are fulfilled in your hearing!" He exclaimed, referring to Isaiah's promises of prisoners released and God's favor poured out. "Are you the one we are waiting for, or should we wait for another?" one of his biggest supporters asked. "Look around," Jesus simply replied, "the blind are seeing and the deaf hearing. The poor hear good news. And the one who is blessed is the one who doesn't take offense at me." In other words, the climactic day, the dawn of the new age, had come in the flesh and blood of the man from Galilee.

To follow Jesus is to believe in a new access to God himself, and as a natural result, a new way to be human. It means to be part of a new type of family-one that is not chained to the fears of this age because its members are heirs to the age to come.

It means to be awakened to the reality that we have already begun to live the life everlasting, that the choices we make are preparing us and sowing into our eternal inheritance. Such a clarity sobers the soul and empowers us to shake off the lesser things that war for our attention, and to delve with all of our hearts into that which is truly life.

Come, the risen Christ beckons, come and shake off the dust. Awaken to the day that is dawning. Pray and love and give, for time is short. Make use of all that you have for the glory of the one who is forever. Receive with all of your heart the Spirit that is the foretaste of all that is yours in Jesus, the very power of the age to come. And in the power of that Spirit, go and set free the world. Love it, bless it, heal it, and call it into its destiny.

This, I believe, is what he meant when he said, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." This, and much more besides. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

No other gods...

The god of the Bible, the god that Jesus claimed he was sent from, was unusual in the Pantheon of the ancient world. In the ancient world (and in some ways, in our modern world as well) there were gods aplenty. Each city had a local deity who needed to be appeased, and each deity came with a collection of shrines and temples and festivals and, of course, statues. It didn't really matter where you went- Rome or Greece, Egypt or India, African jungles or North American plains-you would always find a collection of worship-enticing beings. And the convenient thing was, you could generally interchange them. When in Rome, after all, do as the Romans do and pay tribute to Jupiter (or perhaps Caesar himself). Alexander the Great didn't hesitate to make sacrifices to the local gods whose cities he'd conquered, at least when he wasn't too busy trying to become one of them.

But the Hebrew God was different. The Hebrew prayer, the one that defined them as a people and oriented their entire universe, went like this: "Hear oh Israel, Yahweh is God. Yahweh is one." No mixing would be tolerated here. This god who claimed a special relationship with Abraham's descendents was not to be depicted in stone and put on the mantle with Amon and Shiva. This God claimed he created all things, that he stood apart from his creation and yet manifested himself in the middle of it.

To believe in such a god is to say that everything else in all the universe inhibits a different place than him. That all our goals and dreams, loves and joys, are contingent upon him, the one and only. That in the end, in one sense, all other things will fade into the background and he alone shall remain.

It means that to the extent I love anything in the world, I love it because it springs forth from him. It means that anyplace I feel wronged or threatened, I entrust him to make it right. It means to the extent to which the future feels scary and uncertain, I trust him. My hope is not in the solution I expect god will provide to a problem, my hope is god himself.

God despises idols not because he is petty, but because he is passionate about human destiny. To love creation in place of the creator, to trust in something less than he himself to delight us or protect us or vindicate us, is to fall short of what we were made for. It is to love the wedding ring more than the lover who extends it, or the Christmas gift in place of the father who purchased it.

And so we must raise our vision above all created things. We must lift our eyes to the heavens, where our help comes from. We must not fear what the created world can do to us, for that too is idolatry. We must come face to face with the only one who actually matters. That is the beauty of God the father of Jesus, isn't it? Though he spins the universe into being with a word, he promises to hear us when we cry to him, to be as close to us as our breath.

"I dwell in a high and lofty place, but also with those whose hearts are broken-I hear the cry of the broken-hearted."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

In need of affirmation

"So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God's Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, "Abba, Father." For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God's children."  Romans 8:15-16

So much depth in this statement. First, the spirit God has put in his is his own, as he considers us his children. This spirit can't lead us into slavery to fear, but liberates us and fills us with the courage that comes from knowing God loves us. And with this spirit inside us, we are able to cry out to the Creator of all things "Father, Dad."

But its the last verse that moves me. It promises that God's spirit comes alongside our own to convince us, assure us, and encourage us that we truly are God's children. Imagine, the Spirit of God himself at work within us just to strengthen our resolve that we truly belong to God.

This morning I was going about my morning routine. My one year old daughter was sitting on the floor, playing with toys. She looked up at me as I passed her several times. Finally I noticed her, staring up at me, her arms extended upwards in a way that screamed, "Pick me up! Hold me close! Kiss my cheeks!" I of course responded to her demands, hoisting her into my arms and cherishing the moment as she smiled and giggled.

That is when it hit me. My daughters know that I love them, and yet that doesn't remove their deep need to have that love affirmed. Not just once a year, either. Hourly. And it's not a duty for me-in fact, affirming my love for them is a big part of savoring, celebrating, and experiencing the fullness of that love.

And so I look at those verses in Romans with fresh eyes. Yes, God has called us out of darkness into light, from being strangers and enemies of God to being beloved children. And yes, he puts a spirit inside us that cries out to him, a spirit of sonship and not of fear. But still, given those truths, we need a regular experience of that love. We need to hear the Holy Spirit affirming that reality, the truth of who we are in Him, to our own spirit over and over and over again.

And that affirmation is one he is eager to give. He is a Father, after all, and his love needs be expressed. It is not any more weak or selfish for me to want my heavenly Father's affirmation than it would be for my daughter to seek mine. On the contrary, it honors him-it shows I believe he loves me and that he is kind enough to want to express it to me personally.

The life Christ has called us to live is incompatible with fear. Fear will choke it until it has no power, no impact on the world around us. If we are to follow him, we must be free. We must be trusting. We must be confident that we are his, that he is ours, and that his love for us will never end. And so we need him to pick us up and whisper to us-we need our spirits to be constantly affirmed by his. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Born Blind

The ninth chapter of John's gospel tells a story of a man born blind. When Jesus and the disciples walked past, the disciples leapt into an all too familiar (and futile) exercise of trying to answer the question of "why?" Why did this happen? If he was born blind, then was it perhaps because of his parents' sins? Or was it possible God knew in advance what type of person he would be, and therefore caused him to be born blind as a sort of preemptive judgement?

Jesus turns the question on its head. It had nothing to do with this man's sins, he claimed, nor his parents'. This blindness existed so that the power of God could conquer it.

The disciples, much like us, wanted someone to blame. They wanted to judge, as a way of making sense of the world. Jesus ignores that desire, and points to a greater reality. It is redemption, the transformative work of God in the earth, that should capture our atttention- after all, Christ came not to judge the world, but to save it.

What if we saw the world the way he did? What if we saw pain, evil, and injustice not as accusations against God and people, but as canvases upon which God was eager to paint his work of redemption? What if we are in fact the instruments of that art?

And so the story continues. Christ heals the blind man, causing a controversy among the religious elites. They step in, demanding the young man to tell them who did this miracle. "I do not know who he is," the healed man replied, "but this I know-I once was blind, but now I can see."

The response of the establishment is telling: "You were born a total sinner- and you try to teach us about God!" And they proceeded to cast him out of the religious community.

Christ returned to the now rejected young man, and as he revealed his identity the man cried out, "I believe!" And here Jesus delivers the point of the story: "I entered this world to render judgement-to give sight to the blind, and to show those who think they see how blind they truly are."

This is a story about different types of blindness. The man of course, had been physically blind his entire life. The religious leaders were blinded by an inflated sense of knowledge. Because they saw themselves as the righteous, the ones who had figured things out, they were unable to see God's power at work among them. They were unable to hear the blind man testify of God's goodness, because they refused to accept they had something to learn from a "sinner."

And the disciples were blind at well. They were blinded by their judgements, by their need to blame and have all the answers. Their blindness kept them from seeing how God wanted to reveal his glory right in front of them.

The difference between these three groups of blind people, though, was that the physically blind man knew he was blind. He would not have denied it, would not have defended himself. When Jesus told him to go wash his eyes, he did it, because he wanted to be healed.

This was the judgement that Christ came to bring: that those who know they are blind would see, and those who think they can see would discover their blindness. That the wisdom of the wise would be frustrated, and the folly of children would be exalted. That the weak and worthless things of the world would be revealed as great in the eyes of God.

The point of the story is not to figure out who to blame-in a sense we are all to blame, and in a sense none of us are. The point of the story is to open our eyes. To see the Kingdom of God breaking into our darkness, repainting the ugly places with color, raising the valleys and honoring the lowly. God's world is the opposite of ours, and we will never see it unless we are ready to admit that we were born blind. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Easter Reflections

So for months now I've been meditating (more than usual) upon the death and resurrection of Christ, as I assume this blog surely reflects. At the risk of being redundant, I will attempt to do so yet once more, and hopefully avoid merely restating what I have previously said.

The gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the early apostles is quite simple- God's Kingdom has come to earth, and God's King has been revealed. All of the sublime realities we often associate with the term "gospel" (justification by faith, forgiveness of sins, hope of eternal life, renewal by the Holy Spirit) are all streams branching from that one river.

And this gospel, this claim so utterly massive in terms of its implications for the design and destiny of humanity, is unique. There is something (probably many things, but for this entry's purpose one thing in particular) that makes it distinct from any competing existential claims: the gospel is rooted in a historical event. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is no message, no new kingdom, no new reality. If the man did not walk out of the tomb, there is no gospel. Or as Paul said, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless and you are still dead in your sins."

The event is fascinating first of all because it emerges from a rich prophetic tradition that points towards it. Isaiah 53 most pointedly depicts a suffering servant who would make many righteous, a lamb led to the slaughter who would be somehow buried both as a criminal and placed in a rich man's grave. Yet this poor martyr, who it claims God was pleased to crush, will see the light of life. He will see the results of his anguish and his soul will rejoice. His descendants will multiply and God's perfect will shall prosper in his hand. Such a cryptic, epic prophesy recorded more than half a millenium before Jesus should give us pause.

The death and resurrection of Christ did not emerge in a narrative vaccuum. It was in fact the beautiful and startling crescendo to a story several millenium in the making. The children of Abraham had been exiled, taken as slaves to live a humiliating existence at the hands of pagan overlords. Yet from the days of exile we see prophet after prophet predicting that God would vindicate his people and fulfill his covenant promises made to the great king David. A king would come, a Messiah, to vindicate the people, atone for sin, and establish a new Kingdom blessed by the ongoing favor of God.

It is into these hopes and longings that Jesus Christ emerges. A messiah preaching a new kingdom, a savior coming to atone and vindicate. Yet at the very moment where we expect Yahweh to send plagues on the Romans as he did on the Egyptians, we see Christ on the cross saying "Father, forgive them." Where many hoped for David to slay Goliath, the son of David commands "Go and disciple Goliath." This truly is a new type of kingdom, a new type of covenant, a fulfillment to the unfolding story that shocks us by telling us that this banquet God has planned is for all of us.

And so we see the Easter story as a crescendo of the great story of God and humanity, and yet the story does not end there. I call the resurrection a historical event because it had such a significant hand  in shaping the unfolding of history. The men and women who formed that first Christ-centered community in Jerusalem, many of whom went forth to proclaim the gospel around the ancient world, brought a new worldview into being. They did so for one reason only, they believed they saw Jesus Christ raised from the dead.

Sure, one might argue that because of their deep loyalty and affection for Jesus, the disciples stole his body, pretended he had raised from the dead, and carried the lie on for the rest of their lives. But it doesn't take too much imagination to come to the conclusion that people don't actually behave this way. Such a hoax lacks a clear motive, and would hardly drive one to martyrdom, the fate that awaited the vast majority of Christ's early followers.

The best explanation for early Christianity is that these ordinary men and women witnessed the thing they claimed to witness. That they, propelled by the Holy Spirit Christ promised to give them, went forth with that proclamation and transformed the Roman Empire. And that story of the gospel continues to unfold today. What might seem a far-fetched reality to the outsider, is unbelievably real and transformative for millions across the planet as we speak. From my own small vantage point I could speak of miraculous healings and deliverances from spiritual bondage, of dreams and visions of Jesus still changing lives today.

Easter morning for the disciples 2000 years ago meant a new kingdom, a new reality, a new life. It offers the same to us today. The kingdom has come, and it is here to stay.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Birth of a New Age

I watched a clip recently of a debate between a Christian philosopher and a well-known atheist thinker. They were asked a question about the purpose of life. Does this life have any meaning? Do our lives in any way matter?

The two gentlemen answered in predictable fashion. The Christian argued that we were made to, as the Westminster Catechism claims, "Glorify God and enjoy him forever." That knowing God and being joined to him in eternal friendship is the reason we exist. The atheist responded that, since this life is the only one we are ever going to have, one had to come up with one's own personal reason for living, and that his was to be free and to help others become increasingly more free.

And then he went down a path that surprised me. He argued that if there is an eternal afterlife, why should this world matter? In essence, he claimed that if life after death lasts forever and this one is temporary, then this life becomes meaningless in light of what is to come.

I think his point reveals how the New Testament vision of eternity is broadly misunderstood and misrepresented. For many, believers and nonbelievers, the idea is that we struggle through this temporary physical existence only to leave our bodies and world behind and go to some sort of ethereal timeless existence. That the point of the story is heaven, and that heaven is some cloudy reality that has little to do with this one.

This view is the predominant western view of the afterlife, held by both many committed Christians and nominal ones whose ideas are nonetheless shaped passively by the surrounding culture. It is, however, not the view that the Bible teaches, or that the early apostles proclaimed.

Think of what is fundamental to our current lives. We eat and we drink, we celebrate and we connect. We work and we dream and we create. These essentially good things, things that are pillars of life as we know them in this world, are things we should expect to be a part of the eternal life God has planned for his people. If he created us to love those things now, why do we expect he then wants us to discard them upon death?

On the contrary, the apostolic proclamation is clear that Christ rose in the body, firstborn of many brothers and sisters who would one day rise and join him. Revelation tells us the story is heading not to a heavenly life in the clouds, but to a renewed earth. The picture scripture paints is not the end of a physical life ushering us into a spiritual one, but rather a renewed and perfected human life beginning not when we die, but when we believe. In other words, when a person is baptized into Jesus and goes under the water and back up to symbolize death and resurrection, it is because in Christ our old life is over and the new everlasting one has begun.

Jesus conveys this perspective when he talks to the woman at the well in John 4. "If you knew the gift of God who is standing before you, you would have asked, and he would give you living water...that water becomes a spring inside you, welling up to eternal life." In other words, the moment God's spirit fills a person, they begin the very life that will only grow and increase in them for all eternity.

In this light, we understand what Paul meant when he says Christ saves us from this present evil age. We have, with the resurrection of the crucified Christ, the breaking forth of the eternal, restored age in the middle of the old one that is passing away. Everyone who steps into Jesus steps into the new, eternal age, and begins living out the story they will continue to write with God forever and ever!

If that is how we understand eternity, then we can return to the original challenge raised by the atheist with new eyes. Does belief in eternity make our current lives inconsequential? Quite the contrary! Rather we consider ourselves rescued from the current age that is doomed to death and decay and held in chains by the banality of evil. We are like new-born children, sons and daughters of a new creation, now free from fear because we are born of God's Spirit. We surrender our lives to Jesus as King, and we follow his sacrificial leadership, because we now belong to him and not to this world. We love our neighbors and our enemies, even lay down our lives for them, because they too are invited to this forever Kingdom that is breaking forth in the earth, and because it is the example our Christ has given us.

Christ, then, invites us into a life bursting with meaning, a great deal more so, in fact, than we are able to imagine. When we respond to his call and enter his Kingdom we begin a new life, one redefined by the love of God and increasing in glory for countless ages to come. If one is looking for a meaningful cause to give one's life to, I say look no further.